So, this is what it’s like to root for a No. 1 team? I kinda like it!
Complete. Confident. Conceited. Cocky… Pick your favorite adjective for the Tennessee Vols baseball team. They all apply. And really, it doesn’t matter if you’re a lover of the Big Orange or hate watching them as they stomp on your favorite squad, you can’t deny they’re completely dominating the sport right now.
Tennessee just wrapped up its third straight sweep to begin SEC play by taking down in-state rival Vandy with ease. Former Blackman quarterback and current Vol ace Drew Beam put the final touches on the sweep Sunday, throwing a complete-game gem to lead the Vols to a 5-0 shutout, their ninth straight SEC win (one shy of an SEC record for the most wins to start a season).
It has been thrilling to watch the Vols run up a 27-1 record this year on the diamond. For long stretches of time, I’ve told many people that I just couldn’t get into baseball (whether it was because the games are too long – and, sometimes, they are – or it’s just that my feelings for the game were forever hurt when I got cut back in high school), but these Vols make it fun to be a fan. It doesn’t hurt that Phillip King has brought some of the similar swag to Warren County or that the Braves just had an unforgettable postseason run highlighted by Solar Power and Pederson Pearls.
Still, when I look at my schedules for the week, I’m always trying to figure out a way I can steal some time to watch the Vols. They’re must-see TV because of TV – coach Tony Vitello – and a group that could be called the TV’s – the Tennessee Villains.
For most of my adult life, I’ve had to endure the smugness of Alabama football fans as their team romped to championship after championship. Kentucky basketball fans have a similar air of supremacy, right up to the time the NCAA tournament starts. I knew, deep down, Vols fans had it in them to be just as arrogant, brash and cocky as any other fanbase, we just needed a team to bring it out. We already had the "this is our year" argument before each season, it just happens that this actually may be our year!
Bruce Pearl almost got there, then he had a BBQ. Lane Kiffin could've done it, but he bolted in the middle of the night. Butch couldn’t do it, crumbling under the few bricks he laid. Rick Barnes has probably gotten the closest, but his attitude – and his team’s usual workmanlike approach – doesn’t really inspire hate (some rival fans would probably disagree with that, especially when it comes to Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield).
But Vitello and the Vols --- yeah, people are going to hate them. If I didn’t bleed Orange and White, maybe I would too. Since I do, I can tell you I love every part of them getting under opposing teams’ skins and the pettiness they come with on the field and off it (@Vol_Baseball Twitter has been the perfect amount of petty during this school-record winning streak, particularly while trolling Ole Miss last weekend during a sweep). Our fanbase feels like a wrestling crowd embracing the heel – the guys you’re supposed to hate, yet they become the stars of the show.
I’ve seen the national pundits out there crush the Tennessee fanbase for being delusional, dumb or devilish. When VolNation gets up in arms, it can be a tidal wave of hot takes, heated exchanges and the occasional flying mustard bottle. Every time one Vol fanatic (or a few hundred) says or does something dumb, it becomes an indictment on all of us. Does it matter that every fanbase has them too? Maybe, but it doesn’t feel like you hear about it if you’re an oft-persecuted Vol fan (Other schools have terrible fans too – I’ve been to SEC games on seven different campuses and had stuff thrown at me every stop).
At this point, I don’t even care anymore. If we’re hated, so be it – at least now we have a team worth being hated for. The BaseVols are the special kind of great – they will tell you how they’re going to beat you before it starts, proceed to do it for nine innings then let you hear about it after too. Heck, they’ll probably steal your girl in the parking lot too.
When I see people questioning Jordan ‘Mike Honcho’ Beck for the illegal bat Friday, I just laugh. Whatever bat he used that was legal was plenty good enough the rest of the weekend to bring in three runs, just one shy of Vandy’s team total in three games. That hate is just going to make him more money when he starts raking in cash for NIL deals on Honcho T-Shirts.
The same goes for hate directed to guys like Drew Gilbert, the double celebration king of the Vols, and Luc Lipcius, the first baseman who may have been in some of my business classes back in 2008. They process the hate and spit right back because those dudes are good, they know it and they’re going to let opposing teams hear about it when the trash talk backfires.
Just check this quote from Gilbert after the Vandy series:
That’s some DGAF vibes right there.
Teams are going to get tired seeing the Daddy hat come out when the Vols hit dingers and opposing fans are really going to hate the fur coat pimped out every time Tennessee sends one sailing. The problem is somebody has to stop it – and only one team has so far through two months.
As the Vols keep winning, their confidence only grows. They may not be household names – at least not their real names – but you’re going to hear a lot about Mike Honcho (Beck, a future first-round pick), the Volunteer Fireman (Ben Joyce, who throws 104 MPH), Chase and Chase (Burns and Dollander, also future first-rounders) and the rest of the Knox Bombers. They’re legit. They’re No. 1 and they’re probably headed to an SEC school near you with brooms.
In the midst of all the brashness of Tennessee’s antics on and off the field, I think Burns – a freshman phenom who looks like an MLB starter already – had one of the best lines about how the Vols go about their business. When asked what the pitching staff – the true reason Tennessee is so unbeatable right now – gets as celebration material after their impressive stints on the mound, Burns had an incredible response.
“Nothing - Just the satisfaction of striking somebody out and running off the field… We’re not going to have anything,” said Burns on the SEC Network broadcast Saturday.
Arguably Tennessee’s best player, Burns knows all he really needs is the thrill of winning as motivation to keep up the domination this year. Forget celebration fur coats or respect from other fanbases – the Vols don’t need any of it.
Being No. 1 is enough – for now. Being champions is the real goal.
Quick aside: I must say that Warren County beating the Blaze in 2020 looks more and more impressive every time I watch Drew Beam throw. I get that it’s a different sport, but beating a team with a potential All-American college athlete on it is amazing (and just proves how good CJ Taylor and company were two years ago).